A New Way to Stop Suboxone?

Originally Posted 10/27/2013

I usually have my wife/business partner review my posts and provide her opinion whether my arguments are sound.  For the record, she tells me that this post is technical and boring.  I disagree, but we aren’t planning to separate over the issue.  A valid criticism, I think, is that I’m doing a lot of guessing and wondering in this post.  This post is an example of the things I waste time wondering about.   I try to avoid writing things that are somewhat speculative, but I wanted to give it a shot for two reasons.  First, because there may actually be something to the idea I am about to describe.  But more important, I wish to point out some of the many ideas in the addiction world worth exploring…. And I hope that pharma continues to search for answers (i.e. spend money) in this area of medicine.

So I’ve been thinking more about ALKS 5461, the Alkermes pipeline medication that is a combination of buprenorphine and ALKS 33, which is a mu opioid antagonist also called Samidorphan with the structure shown at the left. ALKS 5461 is being developed by Alkermes for the treatment of major depression.  I don’t know much about the clinical actions of ALKS 33, (a proprietary molecule), except that it comes from a family of drugs that bind with high affinity and specificity to mu or other opioid receptors.  Samidorphan, a mu receptor antagonist, allows investigation of buprenorphine’s potential therapeutic effects at kappa and delta opioid receptors by blocking effects at the mu receptor.  Drugs with actions at other opioid receptors have be developed, and in some case patented.Until recently, theories about depression revolved around abnormalities in brain monoamine pathways or deficiencies of monoamine neurotransmitters.  Monoamines include serotonin, melatonin, and the catecholamines (noradrenaline, dopamine, and adrenaline). Most modern antidepressants act at serotonin or catecholamine receptors or reuptake sites. The new Alkermes medication ALKS 5461 is the first serious effort that I am aware of to treat depression from the opioid perspective.

Our brains contain natural opioids called endorphins and enkephalins.  Endorphins and enkephalins are neurotransmitters in pathways with a wide range of actions, including blocking pain and raising mood during injury or sexual activity. Pain pills such as oxycodone displace endorphins and hijack the natural endorphin pathways, providing euphoria without the trouble of buying flowers.  Of course, a relationship with self-administered opioids always becomes more destructive than even the most codependent partnership!

As an aside, when I presented for addiction treatment 13 years ago I told the addictionologist about my background in neurochemistry, and went on to explain that I was fairly certain that I suffered from a deficiency of natural opioids.  That doctor got a kick out of my story, and I would enjoy a sense of justification if my hypothesis someday proved to be correct.

When one considers using treating depression with buprenorphine, the obvious deal-breaker is the same issue that has prevented every other serious consideration of treating depression with opioids, namely the development of tolerance at the mu opioid receptor.  Because of tolerance, anyone who finds relief from depression with buprenorphine would be cursed by the need for eventual withdrawal, as well as other consequences of opioid dependence. I assume that Samidorphan is added to ALKS 5461 to prevent mu activation and tolerance.  Beyond partial agonist effects at the mu receptor, buprenorphine antagonizes (blocks) delta and kappa opioid receptors.  These blocking actions are not subject to tolerance, and may provide avenues for treating pain and/or depression.

Depression causes significant morbidity throughout the world, so there are huge profit incentives for new antidepressant medications. Addiction creates a large market as well, but companies rarely go as far out on a limb for addiction products as they do for other diseases. The need for new antidepressants is acute, but in an alternate universe where pain and addiction treatment take priority, Samidorphan and related opioid molecules might have a number of benefits. I’ve posted, for example, about my experience treating severe chronic pain by combining buprenorphine with an opioid agonist.  I expect the combination to be exploited eventually given the need for effective pain treatments, perhaps using an analog of Samidorphan.

Doctors use buprenorphine to treat opioid dependence.  The goal of buprenorphine treatment is to block the cycle of use and reward for some period of time, and to allow patients to create support systems, establish self-sufficiency, regain self-esteem, and practice living ‘life on life’s terms.’  The amount of time that it takes to accomplish these goals likely varies depending on the individual’s premorbid function, life experiences, insight, genetics, and other factors, but studies suggest that a year is not long enough to make meaningful headway.   It is possible that for some people, opioid dependence is a relatively permanent condition that is best controlled with life-long maintenance treatment.   But for those who would like to try to maintain sobriety off buprenorphine, the tapering process reignites the circuits that were set up by the initial addiction, causing cravings, withdrawal, and the constant obsession to delay the taper and resume the prior day’s dose of opioid.

If ALKS 33 has a long half-life and blocks buprenorphine in a dose-dependent manner, I could picture an alternate strategy for stopping buprenorphine where the antagonist (ALKS 33) is introduced to buprenorphine patients at a gradually-increasing dose.  The goal would be to eventually have the person on a daily dose of Samidorphan sufficient to block all of buprenorphine’s effects at the mu receptor, at which point the person could discontinue buprenorphine without withdrawal.  I suspect that the patient would experience withdrawal in response to each increase in dose of Samidorphan, although withdrawal would be reduced by introducing the drug at a measured pace.

What is the value in tapering in such a ‘reversed’ way?  Why would adding an antagonist be preferable to the current process, i.e. simply reducing the dose of buprenorphine over time?  The answer comes from an understanding of the nature of addiction.  A person stopping buprenorphine by gradually adding Samidorphan would face the decision once per day, whether to take the next dose of Samidorphan.  Compare that once-per-day decision to the current method of tapering buprenorphine, where the person must decide, thousands of times per day, to NOT take more buprenorphine.  I would expect that deciding to take an antagonist once per day would be more likely to succeed then CONSTANTLY deciding NOT to take buprenorphine all day long, throughout all of life’s ups and downs—times when the patient was conditioned to take opioids.

We will learn more about Alkermes new medication in coming months. I hope that someone in a power position will consider some of the other diseases that might respond to these interesting chemicals, including opioid dependence.